The American University in Cairo’s (AUC) recently built campus in New Cairo has provided Egyptian students the ability to have a genuine “American university experience in Egypt. In doing so, however, it has greatly limited the opportunities for its foreign students to engage with the many aspects of Egyptian society and culture once plentiful at its old location.
AUC’s sprawling 260-acre desert campus, about an hour drive from its old location at Tahrir Square, is a significant improvement for the University as a whole, both quantitatively and qualitatively. More space, new facilities, and greater research capabilities will no doubt enhance its prestige and provide its approximately five and a half thousand undergraduate and graduate students with an enriched academic atmosphere.
However, it is precisely this new setting which removes foreign students from an environment where they can benefit from the learning which takes place outside of the classroom.
As a private, English-speaking university whose students tend to come from educated and wealthy families, AUC has always served as a hub of Egyptian high society. So, although AUC itself has never been the best place for foreign students to practice their amiyya (colloquial Arabic) at the old campus there were ways to interact with ordinary Egyptians, the vast majority of whom do not speak English.
Stepping off campus was like stepping into a different world, jam-packed with pedestrians, beeping taxis, and sidewalk book stands. Students wanting to practice their Arabic and meet Egyptians from all walks of life could do so buying taamiya for lunch and sitting at coffee shops drinking tea, smoking shisha, and watching football.
However, the new campus deprives foreign students of such opportunities by placing them in a one-dimensional bubble in the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand and empty construction sites.
The closest fuul cart miles away, a Cinnabon, a bagel vendor, and an upscale coffee shop have replaced the traditional Egyptian fare found near the old campus. In a telling example of the new campus’ sterility and lack of social diversity, a guide on a recent tour of the campus emphasized that the university’s maintenance staff will navigate the campus via a network of underground tunnels, instead of using the university’s main walkways.
The effects of AUC’s move have extended beyond campus life itself. To avoid the long commute to the new campus from downtown Cairo, where foreign students have typically resided while studying at AUC, many students are moving to suburbs closer to the campus.
Students who have moved to Maadi, a suburb that is home to a large number of expat businesspeople and embassy staff, have trouble finding copies of popular Egyptian novels – in Arabic. Consequently, they find themselves not just learning, but also living in a less authentically Egyptian environment.
As an educational institution, AUC’s decision to move to a new campus was the right one. But for foreign students considering attending AUC, the university’s move strips them of the opportunity to acquire a rich experience in Egypt. Language and culture are best learned when lived, but are harder to come by at AUC’s new campus.
For the sake of its foreign students, AUC’s Arabic Language Institute should seriously consider returning to the university’s old location in the heart of downtown Cairo.
Joseph Simons is a fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo.